If there is one lesson to take away from The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, it is that the pursuit of wealth is hollow and dangerous. The titular battle is fought over possession of the Lonely Mountain, contained within which is a horde of treasure of immeasurable value. For a few, the mountain is desirable for its military position but for most, it’s the treasure that is the crux of the conflict.
At the beginning of the movie, the treasure’s initial owner, Smaug, the dragon, had been content to simply lay on top of the gold and jewels. The treasure’s value, for Smaug, is in its possession. It is a representation of his power. Here lies all of the treasure that no one else has been able to take away from him. When Smaug attacks Laketown, he has every intention of returning to the Mountain to, once again, lord over the piles of coins.
The Master of Laketown, while uninvolved in the pursuit of the treasure, is also greed and selfishness incarnate. As his city burns around him, the Master rushes around, emptying the vaults and stores of the town in order to escape with as much of its resources as possible. The film casts its judgment on both these characters in the same moment, as when Smaug is shot out of the sky, his lifeless corpse crushes The Master when it lands.
The only reason that the elves show up to the battle is because Thranduil, their king, wants some of the shiny elvish jewelry he knows is somewhere within the mountain. Claiming it as his birthright, Thranduil is more than willing to engage in military action for the acquisition of his claim to the treasure. It is only when he is surrounded by an army’s worth of dead elves that he reevaluates and decides to leave the battlefield. The price of Thranduil’s greed is other elves’ grief and suffering.
At least Thorin gets to claim he has a disease in order to justify his blind greed. Apparently, having that much gold, especially gold that a dragon has sat on for a long time, can lead a dwarf to develop a hereditary disorder called “Dragon Sickness.” This “sickness” is all-consuming, making its victim lose sense of priorities, abandoning duty, honor, friendship, and sanity for the sake of possessing pretty much any and everything. In his illness, Thorin ignores the wholesale slaughter going on just outside of his door, including the annihilation of his cousin’s army, which is only there at Thorin’s own request. He allows thousands to die while he sits behind stone walls, concerned only with the protection of his wealth. The treasure, he tells us, is worth any amount of blood that could be spilled for its possession. While Thorin does eventually have a hallucination/epiphany which reminds him of the value of loyalty and friendship, his (and his cousins’) eventual death ensures that the Dragon Sickness, and the poisonous entitlement that comes from inherited wealth, will finally be at an end.
Bard is the only main character who seeks the treasure in order to use it. All he is looking for is his fair share, as promised by Thorin, for the sake of rebuilding a life for the people of his destroyed town. Bard is the only one to treat the treasure as a resource, the only one who intends to use the golden coins as currency. It’s not greed but practicality that spurns his pursuit of the Mountain. It’s no surprise, then, that, while the people of Laketown do suffer in the battle, Bard and his family are left unscathed.
Compare this all to Bilbo. Despite having a stake in it, Bilbo has never cared about the treasure. From the beginning of the movie, he has had in his possession the Arkenstone, the most valuable asset in the Lonely Mountain’s horde. Instead of using it for personal gain, he gives it away, freely, on the chance of ending the war before it begins. The only item we see Bilbo hold with any reverence is an acorn which he intends to plant it when he gets home in order to grow a lasting legacy to this adventure.
When Bilbo does finally return home, some two and a half years after leaving, he arrives to find his house being ransacked and auctioned off by townsfolk who have presumed him dead. While initially troubled, (“those are my spoons, thank you very much!”), Bilbo enters a nearly empty Bag End and is content to find a monogrammed handkerchief and some family portraits. He is not concerned about what he has lost because the few things he has are tokens of who he is and where he has been. Adventure and a life worth living are the real treasure.
Which, if we’re being honest is a wonderful, warm message rife with irony, considering the notorious money-grubbing that led to The Hobbit being three movies in the first place.
Dylan Clark-Moore is a podcast creator and blogger at NetFlakes. You can find him on Letterboxd and Twitter.
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The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is also available from Amazon.